A “readout” from the White House Press Office, on January 18, reported that President Obama had called the Egyptian ruler, Hosni Mubarak, to discuss with him a broad range of issues – “the New Year’s Day attack on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria, developments in Tunisia and Lebanon, and how best to advance Middle East peace.” A discussion of the Tunisian upheaval with the Egyptian despot: This must get the prize for moral and political obtuseness. It is akin to putting a call to Robert Mugabe to discuss effective governance, or checking in with Nicolae Ceausescu before the storm demolished his regime to talk with him about the political life of Eastern and Central Europe. You wonder about the timing of this call, the staff work that preceded it, the moral vision that animates the Obama presidency. No one was calling on Mr. Obama to dispatch the Marines to unseat the Pasha on the Nile, but this intimacy with a dictator in the face of liberty’s winds is a betrayal of bedrock American principles.
The Mubarak regime is a tenacious animal, a reign of informers and security officers, with the army in the background. In its essentials, the regime in Cairo bears more than a passing resemblance to the regime of former despot Zeine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. There is a strongman at the helm, a ruling family, an ambitious wife, and a contempt for the basic principles of accountability, transfer of power, and the possibilities of political reform. If anything, Ben Ali must be reckoned an apprentice when compared with his counterpart in Cairo. Ben Ali seized power in 1987, Mubarak has been at the helm since 1981. These are “national security states” where dissent is treason, where the country as a whole is the ruler’s realm, and dominion. A case of “Tunisia envy” has gripped Egypt since Ben Ali and his voracious wife, the former hairdresser Leila Trabelsi, and their relatives quit the country with the treasure they had looted from a burdened population. (The dictator's wife is reported to have made a final run on the national treasure, hauling away 1.5 tons of gold bars from the Central Bank.) A street vendor, it shall be recalled, on December 17, had triggered the revolt of this once-quiescent people. He had set himself on fire after the police had confiscated his wares, and a policewoman had slapped him across the face in broad daylight. This had happened in the hinterlands, in a hardscrabble village, it was the spark and the upheaval had followed. This was the first sign of life in Arab politics since the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005.
Tunisia both shamed and inspired the Egyptians. Here was a small country – 10 million Tunisians for 80 million Egyptians – banishing its dictator while Egypt succumbed to pessimism and apathy. That act of self-immolation that had pushed Tunisia over the brink made its appearance in Egypt, half a dozen cases were reported there. A regime that had diminished Egyptians and taken them out of public life responded the way it knew how. Its domesticated media went to work depicting the revolt in Tunisia as a riot of lawlessness and looting. The message was crude, there but for the grace of God and the protective shield of the Mubarak regime go we. Mubarak has broken Egypt and three decades at the helm had supplied him with political tricks aplenty. The orders went out to the religious scholars, the Friday sermons in the mosques, on January 21 (a week after the flight of Ben Ali) were to preach against the permissibility of self-immolation, to instruct the faithful that Islam bans suicide, to remind them that the majority of people in paradise are poor, that poverty is a test decreed by God, and that the answer to material deprivation is patience – and belief. Mubarak offers his country nothing but tyranny and a regime of plunder and extortion.
Forgive the Egyptians if they can’t find their way out of the grip of this autocracy. But Barack Obama is not bound by this bleak logic. He owes it to the Egyptians to show some semblance of sympathy for their democratic aspirations. At a minimum, he could have chosen the dignity of silence, he could have steered away from Pharaoh during this time when freedom is making a timid run through Arab lands. Gone is the memory of that false moment of intimacy, in June of 2009, when Barack Obama made an appearance in Cairo to speak of a new era in America’s relations with the Islamic world. There were Egyptian dissidents then who were not sure that the new steward of American power was a friend of theirs. Now the secret is out, the pre-eminent liberal power is an ally of their oppressor. It was odd to hear our president calling for “calm” in Tunisia, asking the Tunisians to “uphold universal human rights and hold fair and free elections in order to meet the aspirations of the Tunisian people.” He had made no such call on the Tunisian despot, and now he had come to speak of freedom as he was “paling around” with one of the Arab world’s most determined despots.